Jim Williams has been watching birds and writing about their antics since before "Gilligan's Island" went into reruns. Join him for his unique insights, his everyday adventures and an open conversation about the birds in your back yard and beyond.
If you haven't yet gone to YouTube for Snowy Owl videos, here's a place to begin:
There are several (probably hundreds if you search), including one from Minnesota where the sound accompanyment is a brisk, freezing wind. That owl is interesting for its very heavy dark barring.
Jude and I were in Ramsey yesterday (11 Feb 14) afternoon, looking for the Snowy Owl being seen there, and hoping to see some of the photographers who are using mice to bait the owls into position for “hunting” photos. The owl was there. Two guys with stubby ice-fishing rods were there, fake mice tied to the end of the fishing line. Casting for owls. They were kneeling in the snow about 50 feet from the bird. I walked to within about of 20 feet of them, behind them, and began talking to them, to their backs, actually.
I told them using mice is wrong. It stresses the bird. It’s unethical. The photos would be fakes, cheesy photos. Never one to under-emphasize, I said most of this at least twice. I invited them to cast a fake mouse so I could take a photo. They neither did so nor turned to face me.
The fake mouse on the fishing line is tossed toward the owl, then retrieved to lure the owl into attack. The owl, of course, gets nothing for its effort. It expends energy and wastes time. We have no way of knowing the cost to the bird of these fruitless hunting efforts. How many times in recent weeks have Twin Cities Snowy Owls wasted energy on cold days in pursuit of fake mice? This is being done at both the Ramsey site and in Dakota County along 180th Street, and perhaps elsewhere. It is an unfortunately common way that a handful of photographers use to scam owls.
After maybe 20 minutes in Ramsey, the two men with fishing rods left. There was a small older one and a large younger one. Walking past me to get to the parking lot, the larger fellow said to me, “Take my picture and I’ll break your f…ing nose.” To add insult to potential injury he said my camera was shitty. So there!!
His comments weren’t unexpected. I certainly did push. But the reluctance of those two men to have their photos taken tells me that they understood perfectly well that their behavior was bad for the owl. These birds get stressed, heart rate elevated, stress hormones released. There is no way to know this by looking at the bird. I read of a comment by a photographer in Dakota County who said of an owl, “Look at him. He’s not stressed. He just sits there and watches us.” The bird should not be watching photographers. It should be hunting.
Four other photographers were present in Ramsey, none armed with mice. Two of them came over to introduce themselves. One of them told me that if I had been “attacked” the four of them were ready to intervene. Can you believe this? Six birders wrestling in two feet of snow because one of them is desperate for a photo! Half an hour later the big ornery guy returned. He walked past me to get onto the path into the owl field, saying in a very quiet polite voice as he passed, “I’m just going to look for something I lost, and then I’ll get out of your hair.” He almost sounded contrite. If so, good for him. What a day!
Photos can be taken of the birds without harm. Keep your distance. Get in and out quickly. Leave if the bird seems to be paying attention to you.
I work with Nikon equipment.. The shot here was taken from about 100 feet with a 400mm lens. One picture is as it came from the camera, the other cropped in Photoshop to enlarge the image of the bird. (The photo would be better if I had a better camera.)
Photographer Michael Thompson spent about five hours Saturday watching for opportunities to photograph the Snowy Owl that has been seen for several days near the intersection of U.S. Highway 10 and 147th Avenue in Ramsey (which is about 10 miles east of Elk River). His cold fingers were rewarded with many excellent shots of the bird. These two show it approaching its landing point atop an evergreen tree at the edge of a public street. Thompson, shown in the third photo as he watched the owl, kindly agreed to share them.
There have been some problems with photographers and a Snowy Owl in Dakota County. Those particular photographers have been trespassing, and approaching the owl close enough to flush it. One day last week someone was seen tossing live mice to the bird as photographers waited for a" hunting" shot. (How happy or proud can you be of a photo that was faked?). All of this is photographic and birding behavior at its worst. Birds never should be disturbed. And feeding an owl is unethical, habituating the bird to humans, which can only lead to problems.
The photographers at Ramsey, and there were five in addition to Thompson, kept their distance from the owl, waiting for it to give them photo opportunities. All were working with telephoto lenses. The bird was allowed to behave in a natural manner. Excellent photos obviously were available without cost to the bird. And Mr. Thompson obviously was equipped to wait as long as was necessary.
The number of Snowy Owls reported in Minnesota is close to 200. Undoubtedly, there are many more owls, uncounted. For instance,a birder has reported talking with a coyote hunter who told her he has seen several Snowy Owls in north central Minnesota recently. He most likely did not report these to the birding email networks. Owl numbers continue to grow. The map can be found at
Owls are routinely being reported near the Twin Cities in Dakota, Wright, Becker, and Anoka counties.
If you go looking, and now you can do that without worry of freezing to death, drive county and township roads slowly. Look at the tops of any objects above ground level. Some of these birds are almost totally white; look closely.
Do not disturb the birds. Do not approach closely. Observation quietly from your car is recommended.
The photo below was taken several years ago at the Minneapolis-St. Paul Airport. Its flatness resembles tundra, at least for these owls,. Tundra is home habitat for Snowies. Hazardous for planes, Snowies found at the airport are live-trapped and relocated.
The Northern Hawk-Owl being seen north of Hutchinson remained in place Monday. This location is significantly south of where this species usually is seen in Minnesota. Several observers watched it yesterday as it hunted along Tagus Avenue about two miles north of Hutchinson. It did not move far from the small blue and white sign marking house number 22375 (west side of road). We took HIghway 7 to Hutchinson, at midtown going north on Highway 15 to a roundabout. We went west on County Road 12 at the roundabout. The road then swung north as it became Tagus Avenue. The bird was ahead about 1.5 miles. When perched the bird almost always chose a power pole. The road carries heavy traffic, which did not seem to bother the hawk-owl at all. It does make caution a good idea for observers, however. Below, the hawk-owl as it left a perch to hunt. We watched it make two brief hunting sallies. It did not take prey in the 30 minutes we spent on site.
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